Why Write a Book on Prayer?
Some years ago I realized that, as a pastor, I didn’t have a first book to give someone who wanted to understand and practice Christian prayer. This doesn’t mean there aren’t great books on prayer. Many older works are immeasurably wiser and more penetrating than anything I could possibly produce. The best material on prayer has been written.
Yet many of these excellent books are written in an archaic idiom inaccessible to most contemporary readers. In addition they tend to be primarily theological or devotional or practical, but seldom do they combine the theological, experiential, and methodological all under one cover.1 A book on the essentials of prayer should treat all three. Also, nearly all the classic books on prayer spend a fair amount of time warning readers about practices in their day that were spiritually unhelpful or even damaging. Such cautions must be updated for readers living in each generation.
Two Kinds of Prayer?
Recent writers on prayer tend to have one of two views on the subject. Most now emphasize prayer as a means to experience God’s love and to know oneness with him. They promise a life of peace and of continual resting in God. Such authors often give radiant testimonies of feeling regularly surrounded by the divine presence. Other books, however, see the essence of prayer not as inward resting but as calling on God to bring in his kingdom. Prayer is viewed as a wrestling match, often—or perhaps ordinarily—without a clear sense of God’s immediate presence. One book of this sort is The Still Hour, by Austin Phelps.2 He begins with the premise that a sense of the absence of God is the norm for the Christian at prayer, and that the experience of God’s presence is difficult for most people to find.
Another book with the same approach is Donald G. Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer. He criticizes what he calls “Christian mysticism.”3 He resists the teaching that prayer’s ultimate goal is personal communion with God. He thinks this makes prayer a selfish “end in itself.”4 In his view, the highest aim of prayer is not peaceful reflection but fervent supplication for the kingdom of God to come to fruition in the world and in our own lives. The ultimate aim of prayer is “obedience to God’s will, not the contemplation of his being.”5 Prayer is not mainly for an inner state but for conformity to God’s purposes.
What accounts for these two views—what we could call “communion-centered” and “kingdom-centered” prayer? One explanation is that they reflect people’s actual experience. Some discover that their emotions are unresponsive toward God and that even paying attention in prayer for more than a few minutes is extremely difficult. Others regularly experience a feeling of God’s presence. This accounts at least in part for the different views. However, theological differences also play a role. Bloesch argues that mystical prayer fits more with the Catholic view that God’s grace is infused directly into us through baptism and the Mass rather than with the Protestant belief that we are saved through faith in God’s word of gospel promise.6
Which view of prayer is the better one? Is peaceful adoration or assertive supplication the ultimate form of prayer? That question assumes that the answer is completely either-or, which is unlikely.
Communion and Kingdom
For help, we should turn first to the Psalms, the inspired prayer book of the Bible. There we see that both experiences of prayer are well represented. There are Psalms such as Psalm 27, 63, 84, 131, and the “long hallelujah” of Psalms 146–150 that depict adoring communion with God. In Psalm 27:4, David says that there is one primary thing he asks of the Lord in prayer—“to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” While David did in fact pray for other things, he means at the very least that nothing is better than to know the presence of God. Therefore he says: “O God . . . my soul thirsts for you. . . . I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, I will praise you” (Ps 63:1–3). When he adores God in his presence, he says his “soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Ps 63:5). This is indeed communion with God.
There are, however, even more Psalms of complaint, of cries for help, and of calls for God to exercise his power in the world. There are also stark expressions of the experience of God’s absence. Here we indeed see prayer as a struggle. Psalms 10, 13, 39, 42–43, and 88 are just a very few examples. Psalm 10 begins asking why God “stands far off” and “hides” himself in times of trouble. Suddenly the author cries, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless” (Ps 10:12). Yet then he seems to speak almost to himself as well as to the Lord. “But you, O God, do see trouble and grief. You consider it to take it to hand. . . . You are the helper of the fatherless” (Ps 10:14). The prayer ends with the psalmist bowing to God’s timing and wisdom in all matters yet still fiercely calling out for justice on the earth. This is the wrestling match of kingdom-centered prayer. The Psalter, then, affirms both the communion-seeking and kingdom-seeking kinds of prayer.
Besides looking at the actual prayers of the Bible, we should consider also the Scripture’s theology of prayer—the reasons in God and in our created nature that human beings are able to pray. We are told that Jesus Christ stands as our mediator so that we, though undeserving in ourselves, can boldly approach God’s throne and cry out for our needs to be met (Heb 4:14–16; 7:25). We are also told that God himself dwells within us through the Spirit (Rom 8:9–11) and helps us to pray (Rom 8:26–27) so that even now by faith we may gaze and contemplate the glory of Christ (2 Cor 3:17–18). Thus the Bible gives us theological support for both communion-centered and kingdom-centered prayer.
A little reflection will show us that these two kinds of prayer are neither opposites nor even discrete categories. Adoring God is shot through with supplication. To praise God is to pray “hallowed be thy name,” to ask him to show the world his glory so that all would honor him as God. Yet just as adoration contains supplication, so seeking God’s kingdom must include prayer to know God himself. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that our purpose is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In this famous sentence we see reflected both kingdom-prayer and communion-prayer. Those two things—glorifying God and enjoying God—do not always coincide in this life, but in the end they must be the same thing. We may pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, but if we don’t enjoy God supremely with all our being, we are not truly honoring him as Lord.7
Finally, when we consult many of the greatest of the older writers on prayer—such as Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin—we see that they do not fall neatly into either camp.8 Indeed, even the prominent Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has sought to bring balance to the mystical, contemplative prayer tradition. He warns against turning inward too much. “Contemplative prayer . . . neither can nor should be self-contemplation, but [rather] a reverent regard and listening to . . . the Not-me, namely, the Word of God.”9
Through Duty to Delight
Where, then, does this leave us? We should not drive a wedge between seeking personal communion with God and seeking the advance of his kingdom in hearts and in the world. And if they are kept together, then communion will not be just wordless mystical awareness on the one hand, and our petitions will not be a way of procuring God’s favor “for our many words” (Matt 6:7) on the other.
This book will show that prayer is both conversation and encounter with God. These two concepts give us a definition of prayer and a set of tools for deepening our prayer lives. The traditional forms of prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—are concrete practices as well as profound experiences. We must know the awe of praising his glory, the intimacy of finding his grace, and the struggle of asking his help, all of which can lead us to know the spiritual reality of his presence. Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality. These will not happen every time we pray, but each should be a major component of our prayer over the course of our lives.
J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom’s book on prayer has a subtitle that sums all this up nicely. Prayer is “Finding Our Way through Duty to Delight.” That is the journey of prayer.
The Necessity of Prayer
“We’re Not Going to Make It”
In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to.
In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife, Kathy, struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:
Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.
Maybe it was the power of the illustration, maybe it was just the right moment, maybe it was the Spirit of God. Or, most likely of all, it was the Spirit of God using the moment and the clarity of the metaphor. For both of us the penny dropped; we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was truly a nonnegotiable necessity was something we could do. That was more than twelve years ago, and Kathy and I can’t remember missing a single evening of praying together, at least by phone, even when we’ve been apart in different hemispheres.
Kathy’s jolting challenge, along with my own growing conviction that I just didn’t get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer. As I looked around, I quickly came to see that I was not alone.
“Can’t Anyone Teach Me to Pray?”
When Flannery O’Connor, the famous Southern writer, was twenty-one years old and studying writing in Iowa, she sought to deepen her prayer life. She had to.
In 1946 she began keeping a handwritten prayer journal. In it she describes her struggles to be a great writer. “I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. . . . I am so discouraged about my work. . . . Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself . . . yet it is impossible not to throw it at myself. . . . I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule.” These kinds of declarations can be found in the journal of any aspiring artist, but O’Connor did something different with these feelings. She prayed them. Here she followed a very ancient path, as did the psalmists in the Old Testament, who did not merely identify, express, and vent their feelings but also processed them with brutal honesty in God’s presence. O’Connor wrote of
effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon . . . what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know You God because I am in the way.10
Here O’Connor recognizes what Augustine saw clearly in his own prayer journal, the Confessions—that living well depended on the reordering of our loves. To love our success more than God and our neighbor hardens the heart, making us less able to feel and to sense. That, ironically, makes us poorer artists. Therefore, because O’Connor was a writer of extraordinary gifts who could have become haughty and self-absorbed, her only hope was in the constant soul reorientation of prayer. “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”11
She reflected on the discipline of writing out her prayers in the journal. She recognized the problem of the form. “I have decided this is not much as a direct medium of prayer. Prayer is not even as premeditated as this—it is of the moment and this is too slow for the moment.”12 Then there was the danger that what she was writing down wasn’t really prayer but ventilation. “I . . . want this to be . . . something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical . . . with the element of self underlying its thoughts.”13
Yet with the journal she believed, “I have started on a new phase of my spiritual life . . . the throwing off of certain adolescent habits and habits of mind. It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.”14 O’Connor learned that prayer is not simply the solitary exploration of your own subjectivity. You are with Another, and he is unique. God is the only person from whom you can hide nothing. Before him you will unavoidably come to see yourself in a new, unique light. Prayer, therefore, leads to a self-knowledge that is impossible to achieve any other way.
Cutting through everything else in O’Connor’s journal was a simple longing to learn truly how to pray. She knew intuitively that prayer was the key to everything else she needed to do and to be in life. She wasn’t content with the perfunctory religious observances of her past. “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love beating me when I think and write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold.”15
At the end of one entry, she simply called out, “Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?”16 Millions of people today are asking the same question. There is a sense of the necessity of prayer—we have to pray. But how?
A Confusing Landscape
Across Western society an interest has been growing in spirituality, meditation, and contemplation that began a generation ago, perhaps inaugurated by the highly publicized interest of the Beatles in Eastern forms of meditation and fueled by the decline of institutional religion. Fewer and fewer people know the routine of regular religious services, yet some kind of spiritual craving remains. Today no one blinks to read a passing reference in a New York Times article that Robert Hammond, one of the founders of the High Line urban park in the Western Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, is going to India for a three-month meditation retreat.17 Scores of Westerners flood to ashrams and other spiritual retreat centers in Asia every year.18 Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted that he was learning Transcendental Meditation. “Everyone recommends,” he said. “Not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything!”19
Within the Christian church, there has been a similar explosion of interest in prayer. There is a strong movement toward ancient meditation and contemplative practices. We now have a small empire of institutions, organizations, networks, and practitioners that teaches and coaches in methods such as centering prayer, contemplative prayer, “listening” prayer, lectio divina, and many others of what are now called “spiritual disciplines.”20
All this interest should not be characterized as a single, coherent “wave,” however. Rather, it is a set of powerful crosscurrents causing dangerously choppy waters for many inquirers. There have been substantial criticisms lodged against much of the new emphasis on contemplative spirituality, within both the Catholic and Protestant churches.21 As I looked around for resources to help me with my prayer life as well as others’, I saw how confusing the landscape was.
“An Intelligent Mysticism”
The way forward for me came by going back to my own spiritual-theological roots. During my first pastorate in Virginia, and then again in New York City, I had the experience of preaching through St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the middle of chapter 8, Paul writes:
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (vv. 15–16)
The Spirit of God assures us of God’s love. First, the Spirit enables us to approach and cry to the great God as our loving father. Then he comes alongside our spirit and adds a more direct testimony. I first came to grips with these verses by reading the sermons of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a British preacher and author of the mid-twentieth century. He made the case that Paul was writing about a profound experience of God’s reality.22 Eventually I found that most modern biblical commentators generally agreed that these verses describe, as one New Testament scholar put it, “a religious experience that is ineffable” because the assurance of secure love in God is “mystical in the best sense of the word.” Thomas Schreiner adds that we must not “underemphasize the emotional ground” of experience. “Some veer away from this idea because of its subjectivity, but the abuse of the subjective in some circles cannot exclude the ‘mystical’ and emotional dimensions of Christian experience.”23
Lloyd-Jones’s exposition also pointed me back to writers I had read in seminary, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, the seventeenth-century British theologian John Owen, and the eighteenth-century American philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. There I discovered no choice offered between truth or Spirit, between doctrine or experience. One of the most accomplished of the older theologians—John Owen—was especially helpful to me at this point. In a sermon on the gospel, Owen gave due diligence to laying the doctrinal foundation of Christian salvation. Then, however, he exhorted his hearers to “get an experience of the power of the gospel . . . in and upon your own hearts, or all your profession is an expiring thing.”24 This heart experience of the gospel’s power can happen only through prayer—both publicly in the gathered Christian assembly and privately in meditation.
In my pursuit of a deeper prayer life, I chose a counterintuitive course. I deliberately avoided reading any new books on prayer at all. Instead, I went back to the historical texts of Christian theology that had formed me and began asking questions about prayer and the experience of God—questions I had not had in my mind very clearly when I studied these texts in graduate school decades before. I discovered many things I had completely missed. I found guidance on the inward life of prayer and spiritual experience that took me beyond the dangerous currents and eddies of the contemporary spirituality debates and movements. One I consulted was the Scottish theologian John Murray, who provided one of the most helpful insights of all:
It is necessary for us to recognize that there is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith . . . of living union and communion with the exalted and ever-present Redeemer. . . . He communes with his people and his people commune with him in conscious reciprocal love. . . . The life of true faith cannot be that of cold metallic assent. It must have the passion and warmth of love and communion because communion with God is the crown and apex of true religion.25
Murray was not a writer given to lyrical passages. Yet when he speaks of “mysticism” and “communion” with the one who died and ever lives for us, he is assuming that Christians will have a palpable love relationship with him and do have a potential for a personal knowledge and experience of God that beggars the imagination. Which, of course, means prayer—but what prayer! In the midst of the paragraph, Murray quotes Peter’s first epistle: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” The older King James version calls it “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Some translate it “glorified joy beyond words.”26
As I pondered that verse, I had to marvel that Peter, in writing to the church, could address all his readers like this. He didn’t say, “Well, some of you with an advanced spirituality have begun to get periods of high joy in prayer. Hope the rest of you catch up.” No, he assumed that an experience of sometimes overwhelming joy in prayer was normal. I was convicted.
One phrase of Murray’s resonated particularly, that we were called to an intelligent mysticism. That means an encounter with God that involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together. I was not being called to leave behind my theology and launch out to look for “something more,” for experience. Rather, I was meant to ask the Holy Spirit to help me experience my theology.
Learning to Pray
As Flannery O’Connor asked so plaintively, how, then, do we actually learn how to pray?
In the summer after I was treated successfully for thyroid cancer, I made four practical changes to my life of private devotion. First, I took several months to go through the Psalms, summarizing each one. That enabled me to begin praying through the Psalms regularly, getting through all of them several times a year.27 The second thing I did was always to put in a time of meditation as a transitional discipline between my Bible reading and my time of prayer. Third, I did all I could to pray morning and evening rather than only in the morning. Fourth, I began praying with greater expectation.
The changes took some time to bear fruit, but after sustaining these practices for about two years, I began to have some breakthroughs. Despite ups and downs since then, I have found new sweetness in Christ and new bitterness too, because I could now see my heart more clearly in the new light of vital prayer. In other words, there were more restful experiences of love as well as more wrestling to see God triumph over evil, both in my own heart and in the world. These two experiences of prayer we discussed in the introduction grew together like twin trees. I now believe that is how it should be. One stimulates the other. The result was a spiritual liveliness and strength that this Christian minister, for all my preaching, had not had before. The rest of the book is a recounting of what I learned.
Prayer is nonetheless an exceedingly difficult subject to write about. That is not primarily because it is so indefinable but because, before it, we feel so small and helpless. Lloyd-Jones once said that he had never written on prayer because of a sense of personal inadequacy in this area.28 I doubt, however, that any of the best authors on prayer in history felt more adequate than Lloyd-Jones did. The early-twentieth-century British writer P. T. Forsyth expressed my own feeling and aspiration better than I can:
It is a difficult and even formidable thing to write on prayer, and one fears to touch the Ark. . . . But perhaps also the effort . . . may be graciously regarded by Him who ever liveth to make intercession as itself a prayer to know better how to pray.29
Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.
We must learn to pray. We have to.
The Greatness of Prayer
For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
The Supremacy of Prayer
A quick comparison of this prayer from Ephesians 1 with those in Philippians 1, Colossians 1, and later in Ephesians 3 reveals that this is how Paul customarily prayed for those he loved. At the grammatical heart of Paul’s long sentence is a striking insight into the greatness and importance of prayer. In verse 17 he writes: “I keep asking that . . . you may know him better.”
It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we would usually have near the top of our lists of requests.
Does that mean it would have been wrong to pray for such things? Not at all. As Paul knew, Jesus himself invites us to ask for our “daily bread” and that God would “deliver us from evil.” In 1 Timothy 2, Paul directs his readers to pray for peace, for good government, and for the needs of the world. In his own prayers, then, Paul is not giving us a universal model for prayer in the same way Jesus did. Rather, in them he reveals what he asked most frequently for his friends—what he believed was the most important thing God could give them.
What is that? It is—to know him better. Paul explains this with color and detail. It means having the “eyes of their hearts . . . enlightened” (Ephesians 1:18). Biblically, the heart is the control center of the entire self. It is the repository of one’s core commitments, deepest loves, and most foundational hopes that control our feeling, thinking, and behavior. To have the “eyes of the heart enlightened” with a particular truth means to have it penetrate and grip us so deeply that it changes the whole person. In other words, we may know that God is holy, but when our hearts’ eyes are enlightened to that truth, then we not only understand it cognitively, but emotionally we find God’s holiness wondrous and beautiful, and volitionally we avoid attitudes and behavior that would displease or dishonor him. In Ephesians 3:18, Paul says he wants the Spirit to give them “power . . . to grasp” all the past, present, and future benefits they received when they believed in Christ. Of course, all Christians know about these benefits in their minds, but the prayer is for something beyond that—it is to have a more vivid sense of the reality of God’s presence and of shared life with him.
Paul sees this fuller knowledge of God as a more critical thing to receive than a change of circumstances. Without this powerful sense of God’s reality, good circumstances can lead to overconfidence and spiritual indifference. Who needs God, our hearts would conclude, when matters seem to be so in hand? Then again, without this enlightened heart, bad circumstances can lead to discouragement and despair, because the love of God would be an abstraction rather than the infinitely consoling presence it should be. Therefore, knowing God better is what we must have above all if we are to face life in any circumstances.
Paul’s main concern, then, is for their public and private prayer life. He believes that the highest good is communion or fellowship with God. A rich, vibrant, consoling, hard-won prayer life is the one good that makes it possible to receive all other kinds of goods rightly and beneficially. He does not see prayer as merely a way to get things from God but as a way to get more of God himself. Prayer is a striving to “take hold of God” (Is 64:7) the way in ancient times people took hold of the cloak of a great man as they appealed to him, or the way in modern times we embrace someone to show love.
By praying in this way, Paul was assuming the priority of the inner life with God.30 Most contemporary people base their inner life on their outward circumstances. Their inner peace is based on other people’s valuation of them, and on their social status, prosperity, and performance. Christians do this as much as anyone. Paul is teaching that, for believers, it should be the other way around. Otherwise we will be whiplashed by how things are going in the world. If Christians do not base their lives on God’s steadfast love, then they will have “to accept as success what others warrant to be so, and to take their happiness, even their own selves, at the quotation of the day. They tremble, with reason, before their fate.”31
The Integrity of Prayer
If we give priority to the outer life, our inner life will be dark and scary. We will not know what to do with solitude. We will be deeply uncomfortable with self-examination, and we will have an increasingly short attention span for any kind of reflection. Even more seriously, our lives will lack integrity. Outwardly, we will need to project confidence, spiritual and emotional health and wholeness, while inwardly we may be filled with self-doubts, anxieties, self-pity, and old grudges. Yet we won’t know how to go into the inner rooms of the heart, see clearly what is there, and deal with it. In short, unless we put a priority on the inner life, we turn ourselves into hypocrites. The seventeenth-century English theologian John Owen wrote a warning to popular and successful ministers:
A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.32
To discover the real you, look at what you spend time thinking about when no one is looking, when nothing is forcing you to think about anything in particular. At such moments, do your thoughts go toward God? You may want to be seen as a humble, unassuming person, but do you take the initiative to confess your sins before God? You wish to be perceived as a positive, cheerful person, but do you habitually thank God for everything you have and praise him for who he is? You may speak a great deal about what a “blessing” your faith is and how you “just really love the Lord,” but if you are prayerless—is that really true? If you aren’t joyful, humble, and faithful in private before God, then what you want to appear to be on the outside won’t match what you truly are.
Just prior to giving his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus offered some preliminary ideas, including this one: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen . . . in secret” (Matt 6:5–6). The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social expectations, or perhaps by the anxiety caused by troubling circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God as Father, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff.
Giving priority to the inner life doesn’t mean an individualistic life. Knowing the God of the Bible better can’t be achieved all by yourself. It entails the community of the church, participation in corporate worship as well as private devotion, and instruction in the Bible as well as silent meditation. At the heart of all the various ways of knowing God is both public and private prayer.
A pastor and friend of mine, Jack Miller, once said he could tell a great deal about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him or her pray. “You can tell if a man or woman is really on speaking terms with God,” he said. My first response was to make a mental note never to pray aloud near Jack again. I’ve had years to test out Jack’s thesis. It is quite possible to become florid, theologically sound, and earnest in your public prayers without cultivating a rich, private prayer life. You can’t manufacture the unmistakable note of reality that only comes from speaking not toward God but with him. The depths of private prayer and public prayer grow together.
The Hardness of Prayer
I can think of nothing great that is also easy. Prayer must be, then, one of the hardest things in the world. To admit that prayer is very hard, however, can be encouraging. If you struggle greatly in this, you are not alone.
The Still Hour, a classic book on prayer by nineteenth-century American theologian Austin Phelps, starts with the chapter “Absence of God, in Prayer” and the verse from Job 23:3—“Oh that I knew where I might find him!” Phelps’s book begins with the premise that “a consciousness of the absence of God is one of the standing incidents of religious life. Even when the forms of devotion are observed conscientiously, the sense of the presence of God, as an invisible Friend, whose society is a joy, is by no means unintermittent.”33
Phelps goes on to explain the numerous reasons why there is such dryness in prayer and how to endure through that sense of God’s unreality. The first thing we learn in attempting to pray is our spiritual emptiness—and this lesson is crucial. We are so used to being empty that we do not recognize the emptiness as such until we start to try to pray. We don’t feel it until we begin to read what the Bible and others have said about the greatness and promise of prayer. Then we finally begin to feel lonely and hungry. It’s an important first step to fellowship with God, but it is a disorienting one.
When your prayer life finally begins to flourish, the effects can be remarkable. You may be filled with self-pity, and be justifying resentment and anger. Then you sit down to pray and the reorientation that comes before God’s face reveals the pettiness of your feelings in an instant. All your self-justifying excuses fall to the ground in pieces. Or you may be filled with anxiety, and during prayer you come to wonder what you were so worried about. You laugh at yourself and thank God for who he is and what he’s done. It can be that dramatic. It is the bracing clarity of a new perspective. Eventually, this can be the normal experience, but that is never how the prayer life starts. In the beginning the feeling of poverty and absence usually dominates, but the best guides for this phase urge us not to turn back but rather to endure and pray in a disciplined way, until, as Packer and Nystrom say, we get through duty to delight.
We must beware of misunderstanding such phrases, however. Seasons of dryness can return for a variety of causes. We don’t spend a discrete amount of time in dryness until we break through permanently into joy and feeling. Instead, the vivid reorientation of mind, and the overall sense of God on the heart, comes more frequently and sometimes in startling ways—interspersed with times of struggle and even absence. Nevertheless, the pursuit of God in prayer eventually bears fruit, because God seeks for us to worship him (John 4:23) and because prayer is so infinitely rich and wondrous.
The Centrality of Prayer
The Bible is all about God, and that is why the practice of prayer is so pervasive throughout its pages. The greatness of prayer is nothing but an extension of the greatness and glory of God in our lives. The Scripture is one long testimony to this truth.
In Genesis we see every one of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—praying with familiarity and directness. Abraham’s doggedly insistent prayer for God’s mercy on the pagan cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is remarkable (Gen 18:23ff). In Exodus, prayer was the way Moses secured the liberation of Israel from Egypt. The gift of prayer makes Israel great: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Deut 4:7).34
To fail to pray, then, is not to merely break some religious rule—it is a failure to treat God as God. It is a sin against his glory. “Far be it from me,” said the prophet Samuel to his people, “that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Sam 12:23 [italics mine]).35 King David composed much of the Psalter, God’s inspired prayer book, filled with appeals to “you who answer prayer” (Ps 65:2). His son Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem and then dedicated it with a magnificent prayer.36 Solomon’s main petition for the temple was that from it God would hear his people’s prayers—indeed, Solomon’s highest prayer was for the gift of prayer itself.37 Beyond that, he hoped those from other nations would “hear of your great name . . . and pray toward this temple” (1 Kings 8:42). Again we see prayer is simply a recognition of the greatness of God.
The Old Testament book of Job is largely the record of Job’s suffering and pain—worked through with prayer. In the end, God is angry with Job’s callous friends and tells them he will refrain from their punishment only if Job prays for them (Job 42:8). Prayer permeated the ministry of all the Old Testament prophets.38 It may have been the ordinary means by which the Word of God itself came to them.39 The Jews’ preservation and return from exile in Babylon was essentially carried out through prayer. Their exile began with a call to pray for the pagan city and their neighbors (Jer 29:7). Daniel, nearly executed by the Babylonian authorities over his insistence on prayer three times a day, prays a prayer of repentance for his people, asks for their return, and is heard.40 Later, Nehemiah rebuilds the wall around Jerusalem with a series of great prayers interspersed with wise leadership.41
Jesus Christ taught his disciples to pray, healed people with prayers, denounced the corruption of the temple worship (which, he said, should be a “house of prayer”), and insisted that some demons could be cast out only through prayer. He prayed often and regularly with fervent cries and tears (Heb 5:7), and sometimes all night. The Holy Spirit came upon him and anointed him as he was praying (Luke 3:21–22), and he was transfigured with the divine glory as he prayed (Luke 9:29). When he faced his greatest crisis, he did so with prayer. We hear him praying for his disciples and the church on the night before he died (John 17:1–26) and then petitioning God in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Finally, he died praying.42
Immediately after their Lord’s death, the disciples prepare for the future by being “constantly in prayer” together (Acts 1:14). All church gatherings are “devoted . . . to prayer” (Acts 2:42; 11:5; 12:5, 12). The power of the Spirit descends on the early Christians in response to powerful prayer, and leaders are selected and appointed only with prayer. All Christians are expected to have a regular, faithful, devoted, fervent prayer life. In the book of Acts, prayer is one of the main signs that the Spirit has come into the heart through faith in Christ. The Spirit gives us the confidence and desire to pray to God and enables us to pray even when we don’t know what to say. Christians are taught that prayer should pervade their whole day and whole life—they should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).43
Prayer is so great that wherever you look in the Bible, it is there. Why? Everywhere God is, prayer is. Since God is everywhere and infinitely great, prayer must be all-pervasive in our lives.
The Richness of Prayer
One of the greatest descriptions of prayer outside of the Bible was written by the poet George Herbert (1593–1633) in his “Prayer (I).” The poem is remarkable for tackling the immense subject of prayer in just one hundred words and without a single verb or prose construction. Instead, Herbert gives us some two dozen word pictures.
In the next chapters, we will work at defining prayer, but there is a danger in doing that. A definition seeks to reduce things to the essence. George Herbert wants instead to move us in the opposite direction. He wants to explore the richness of prayer with all its infinities and immensities. He does so by overwhelming both our analytical and our imaginative faculties.
PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
Prayer is “Gods breath in man returning to his birth.” Many who are otherwise skeptical or nonreligious are shocked to find themselves praying despite not even formally believing in God. Herbert gives us his explanation for that phenomenon. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” and “breath” is the same, and so, Herbert says, there is something in us from God that knows we are not alone in the universe, and that we were not meant to go it alone. Prayer is a natural human instinct.
Prayer can be “softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse”—the deep rest of soul that we need. It is “the souls bloud,” the source of strength and vitality. Through prayer in Jesus’ name and trust in his salvation we come as a “man well drest,” spiritually fit for the presence of the king. That is why we can sit down with him at “the Churches banquet.” Feasts were never mere feedings but a sign and means of acceptance and fellowship with the Host. Prayer is a nourishing friendship.
Prayer also is “a kinde of tune.” Prayer tunes your heart to God. Singing engages the whole being—the heart through the music as well as the mind through the words. Prayer is also a tune others can hear besides you. When your heart has been tuned to God, your joy has an effect on those around you. You are not proud, cold, anxious, or bored—you are self-forgetful, warm, profoundly at peace, and filled with interest. Others will notice. All “heare and fear.” Prayer changes those around us.
Prayer can be a “land of spices,” a place of sensory overload, of exotic scents and tastes—and a “milkie way,” a place of marvels and wonders. When that happens, prayer is truly of “Angels age,” an experience of timeless eternity. Yet no one in history has found that “land of spices” quickly or easily. Prayer is also the “heart in pilgrimage,” and in Herbert’s time a pilgrim was someone who was engaged on a long, difficult, and exhausting trek. To be in pilgrimage is to have not yet arrived. There is a longing in prayer that is never fulfilled in this life, and sometimes the deep satisfactions we are looking for in prayer feel few and far between. Prayer is a journey.
Even in spiritually lean times, prayer can serve as a kind of heavenly Manna” and quiet “gladnesse” that keeps us going, just as the manna in the wilderness kept Israel moving toward its hope. Manna was simple food, especially savory, but hardly a banquet. Yet it sustained them wonderfully, a kind of travelers’ waybread that brought an inner endurance. Prayer helps us endure.
One reason for the arduousness is because true prayer is “the soul in paraphrase.” God does not merely require our petitions but our selves, and no one who begins the hard, lifelong trek of prayer knows yet who they are. Nothing but prayer will ever reveal you to yourself, because only before God can you see and become your true self. To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it and make it accessible. Prayer is learning who you are before God and giving him your essence. Prayer means knowing yourself as well as God.
Prayer is not all quiet, peace, and fellowship. It is also an “engine against th’ Almightie,” a startling phrase that clearly refers to the siege engines filled with archers that were used in Herbert’s day to storm a city. The Bible contains laments and petitions and pleadings, for prayer is rebellion against the evil status quo of the world—and they are not in vain, for they are as “church-bels beyond the stars heard” and indeed are “reversed thunder.” Thunder is an expression of the awesome power of God, but prayer somehow harnesses that power so that our petitions are not heard in heaven as whispers but as crack, boom, and roar. Prayer changes things.